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Campus Has Year to Prove Itself

May 18, 2003|David Pierson and Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writers

The starting gates of the biggest race ever for Granada Hills High School are not on the school's grassy athletic field. Instead, the sprint will be held inside the campus' one-story classrooms, in the principal's office and even in the cafeteria.

The Los Angeles Board of Education voted last week to grant Granada Hills High charter school status, which educators say represents the largest charter conversion of an existing public school in the country.

The 3,800-student school had sought such status for five years, but a skittish central administration, lacking a cohesive policy on charters and fearful of losing more high-achieving schools such as Granada Hills, decided to give the school only one year to prove itself.

And so the school's teachers, parents and administrators will begin July 1 implementing their own curriculum and policies, and learning to live without the administrative support of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which provided them everything from pencils to peanuts.

Whether or not they meet their goals, experts say, will have an effect on education nationwide.

"This isn't just about Granada Hills High School's success," Los Angeles school board President Caprice Young said.

"It's about the charter movement succeeding. Granada Hills will have to meet higher expectations than other public schools."

Fueling the charter drive at Granada Hills High was the belief that the district represented a sprawling and inflexible institution geared toward under-performing schools.

Academic stalwarts such as Granada Hills, which has the highest standardized test scores among the district's full-sized high schools, did not have the freedom to tailor more advanced programs to its students, charter advocates said.

By becoming a charter campus, Granada Hills High will receive funding directly from Sacramento and free itself from much of the district's and state's rules.

It must still adhere to the state's academic standards.

But after last week's school board decision, some at Granada Hills said they were unsure if a one-year agreement signaled victory or defeat. Regardless, teachers and administrators agreed they must do their best with the situation they've been handed.

"We have to quickly prioritize the most significant improvements right away," said Elisa Rogus, an English teacher who has been at the school for 16 years. "However, that increases the risk of being disorganized."

Now that he has new-found flexibility in his budget, Principal Brian Bauer said his first goals will be to reduce class sizes by adding 10 teaching positions with money freed from district mandates, and avoiding the year-round class schedule the district was expected to implement.

Other ideas include extending the school day by two periods and offering students a chance to earn their diplomas in three years. More advanced courses may be created and some classes will be offered to interested students in all grades, much like college scheduling.

Bauer hopes to restore a strict attendance policy that used to fail students with at least 15 absences in a class. Bauer said the rule resulted in higher grades and much improved attendance, but the district said it violated state laws and had the policy removed last year, sparking bad blood that contributed to the charter campaign.

Already there are small signs that things will be different next school year.

Bob Higgins, the school's cafeteria manager, will receive a new title: food service director. He speaks enthusiastically about adding two new salad bars and moving away from the district's notorious burritos and shake 'n' bake chicken lunches.

"We've got the Rolls-Royce of grills stored out back," Higgins said. "We'll be able to do burgers, shish kebabs and chicken breasts."

Chelsea Crawford, an eight-year teacher at Granada Hills, said she welcomes the charter's flexibility in finances. She recalled being frustrated over receiving $5,000 for textbooks one year, even though her class already had enough books. District rules prevented her from using that money to pay for sorely needed lab equipment and field trips.

"It's a total waste," Crawford said. "Some other teacher got the money, but I ended up with nothing."

Still undetermined is how to judge the school's performance the next time its charter request is presented to the board.

A petition must be submitted by January, but the charter's first round of standardized test scores will not be released until August 2004.

District officials say they can gauge success by checking such areas as class-size reductions, new course offerings, good financial management and public reaction.

"What can you expect in a year?" said board member Mike Lansing, who supported the charter. "You have to be reasonable."

Renewal of Granada Hills' charter also will hinge on how much the school contributes to the district, both financially and in helping ease the district's overcrowding crisis.

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